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This is how people lose their minds

January 7, 2017



Six months ago I almost died. It’s taken this long to know how to write about it.

These are the parts that I remember.

It started simply and quietly as exhaustion. Each morning I struggled to get out of bed and each evening I collapsed as soon as I got home. My husband told me it was stress—I had just taken a promotion—but I knew it was something else. I blamed Ramadan and the fact that we were getting up two hours earlier every morning. I took vitamins, drank rehydration salts, and scoured WebMD without improvement.

“To say I’m exhausted can’t even begin to describe how I’m feeling.” I wrote in my journal. “It’s trying to stay upright without bones in your legs. It’s melting so completely into the bed that you no longer hear the alarm.”

The fever started two weeks after I wrote those words. It came in the evening with the familiar chill I’ve learned to associate with tropical fevers. Wrapped in three blankets with teeth chattering uncontrollably, even the memory of heat seems gone. It’s a cold like I’ve never felt in the worst winter. Then suddenly, about an hour later, the sweat comes and blankets are thrown off. My husband soothed me with cold compresses through the night and by morning it had completely passed and I was back at the office.

All my bosses were coming from America and I had been asked to plan and facilitate the three-day annual workshop. I’d had similar fevers before and wasn’t too concerned. If the tablets didn’t clear it up I’d just go to the hospital for an injection.

By the third night the fever was out of control. At 3:00am I woke my husband on the verge of tears. I was freezing and sweating at the same time and my head hurt. The thermometer read 105° F. He told me to get dressed so we could go to the hospital. “I can’t,” I whimpered. “Please help me.” He somehow got me in the car and we made the short drive to the hospital.

The government hospital is a place you imagine people go to die, but I wasn’t worried. I had been there with malaria a year earlier, just a few days before my wedding. They had given me an injection and I’d left an hour later to recover at home. I assumed today would be the same and I’d be in the office by mid-morning.

Because of my fever I had to be admitted to the ER, a new rule post-Ebola. It’s a small room with no more than ten beds crammed inside. People lay naked, bleeding, and moaning with no privacy. The first time I visited they took me to the bathroom to give a urine sample and feces covered most of the floor and half of the wall. “If I don’t have typhoid already,” I thought, “I have it now.”

No, the hospital doesn’t have running water.

This morning we met only one nurse in the ER. He eyed me suspiciously and gave me a wooden school chair to sit in while Sellah retrieved my records and paid the $10 admission fee. I slumped over and rested my head in my lap as sweat soaked through my clothes. When my husband finally returned with the receipt the nurse agreed to admit me but refused to give me a bed because we hadn’t brought any bed sheets. Sellah rushed home and I remained slumped over in my chair.

Several children were in the ER that night and a small girl was discharged while I waited. She had taken her treatment bravely but screamed uncontrollably when she was forced to walk past me to exit. I shared a weak smile with her exhausted mother before closing my eyes again. A little boy lay on the bed directly across from me, an IV in his tiny hand and his breathing ragged and painful. Behind a lapa screen a woman moaned uncontrollably while family members tried to calm her, her pain and the boy’s pain falling into an eerie rhythm.

When Sellah returned with the sheets I was given a bed in the only private part of the ER, where the few outdated instruments are kept. After giving blood and urine samples to the lab I told my husband to leave and go to work. “I’ll be fine,” I smiled weakly. “If you’re worried call Siaffa to come.” Siaffa is a student I sponsor at the university and he is widely known to be my “son.”

Shortly after Sellah left I heard wailing outside the door. “It’s time to go,” I heard the nurse saying. “The beds are for patients not bodies.” The little boy was dead.

The sun was bright when I woke up. I had an IV in my hand and my fever was gone. My husband shook my arm and I turned my head to see him standing with my son and the doctor. “You have typhoid,” the doctor announced. “You’re going to have to stay here for a few days.” I shook my head weakly, “That’s not possible. I have malaria. I will leave today.” The doctor laughed. “Maybe if you were one of us, but looking at your condition as a white person I can’t agree to that. You have to stay.” I continued to shake my head and explained about the meeting and my bosses. “I live five minutes away. I’ll come for my treatment every night. Just give me the drugs. I’ve been here five years. I’m not afraid,” I insisted, still unable to sit up.

My husband took my hand, “RB, we’ll discuss it later. Right now you need to get dressed. You’re leaving the ER.” They helped me back into my sweat-soaked lapa suit and I stumbled down the corridor holding my son’s arm, refusing their offer of a wheelchair. As we rounded the corner a large group stood up in the waiting area: my colleagues from the College. Embarrassed, I tried to straighten my dirty hair and bowed weakly. “I’m alright,” I assured them. “I’ll be at the meeting tomorrow.” They followed me to my new private room, praying and singing gospel songs before the nurse ushered them out.

My new room cost $30US a night and I couldn’t believe it existed in such an otherwise dilapidated hospital. There were two beds, an air conditioner, and a private, clean bathroom. The nurse gave me a new IV and a second injection of antibiotics in my thigh. I was starting to feel better and Siaffa and I told jokes and stories until Sellah came back. He carried a plastic bag in his hand and looked exhausted. “I decided to go for my own test,” he said. “I have typhoid and malaria.” He collapsed on the other bed and asked a nurse to inject him with some of the medicine from the plastic bag.

The doctor came in the evening and said that he would allow me to go to work if I agreed to sleep at the hospital for several days and always come for my treatment on time. I slept well and we returned to campus the next morning. I dressed in my favorite new suit, black with a burgundy lace design, and carefully wrapped the hair tie around my hand to hide the IV. I drove to the office and immediately wondered if it was a mistake. My head started to swim and I was sweating but it was too late. Someone handed me the program and asked me to introduce the meeting. Standing in front of the group I heard words coming out of my mouth and saw my boss nodding encouragingly but I had no idea what was going on. They quickly sent someone to replace me as facilitator and I took my seat next to the University President.

I made it through the morning then excused myself at lunch to go for my treatment. I stopped at the house to get a book and feed my parrots then drove the five minutes to the hospital. I had no idea I wouldn’t be back for several days.

I reported to the nurses’ station and made the long walk to my private room past the hundreds of less fortunate patients crammed on cots and curled on floor mats, their babies crying, their loved ones begging for their better treatment. I averted my eyes and said a silent prayer of gratitude that I had the means to afford better treatment. I vowed to continue fighting for a more just world.

Inside the room I turned the air conditioner down and settled in bed with my book. The nurse gave me another IV and came to check my blood pressure and temperature every few hours. She glared at me silently and resentfully every time she entered the room. I was fully aware I needed her friendship if I was going to receive good treatment so I struck up a conversation and asked her name. Ma Etter is one of the people I credit with saving my life a few days later.

Later that afternoon my husband arrived looking weak and I read The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency to him until he fell asleep. That night my fever returned and the next morning I couldn’t get out of bed. My husband’s family brought me food but I refused to eat. “My head hurts,” I moaned to a different nurse. She shrugged and told me I was sick.

The next few days are a blur but I remember Sellah and I stayed at the hospital through the weekend. I missed both the workshops I had helped plan and that I was supposed to facilitate. Our conditions swung back and forth. I would feel a little better so I would take care of him. When I got worse again he would feel better and take care of me. They had diagnosed him with malaria in addition to typhoid and it was raging. One afternoon he couldn’t stop vomiting. After four hours and a nearly full shower drain I wrapped a lapa around my waist and tottered out to the nurses’ station. “No one has been to our room for hours,” I said angrily. “My husband can’t stop throwing up. Please send someone!” She was reading Facebook on her phone and barely looked up. “He’s sick. What do you expect?” I slammed my fist on the desk. “I want to see the doctor!” She laughed. “There is no doctor. It’s the weekend.”

No one came until the nurses changed shift in the evening.

My condition was taking a definite turn for the worse too. Lying under the air conditioner I constantly complained I was hot. “Take my temperature!” I begged the nurse. “I have a fever!” She stared at me blankly and said the thermometer was broken and she couldn’t treat me for a fever she couldn’t prove I had. This was the same nurse who the day before yelled at me for having my belongings strewn across the floor rather than packed neatly.

I woke up in the middle of the night with my head throbbing, my mind reeling, and sweat soaked through all the sheets. “This is how people lose their minds,” I thought calmly before going back to sleep.

Several years before a close friend had gone crazy after experiencing malaria symptoms. He disappeared into the sick bush, diagnosed with an African Sign and a “demon.” Witchcraft.

Sellah begged the nurses to treat me for malaria but they refused, insisting my test was negative.

After three or four days my stomach started running. I was extremely lucky to have a private bathroom but I couldn’t maneuver the IV to get inside. I asked Sellah to find a nurse to remove it, but as soon as he left I realized I couldn’t wait. I got up and tried to pull it behind me the way people do so easily in TV shows. The stand was old and heavy, however, and rather than move with me the needle pulled out of my hand. The last thing I remember is blood running down my arm as I stumbled the few steps to the bathroom.

“RB, WAKE UP!” I heard Sellah shout. “THE DOCTOR WANTS TO SEE YOU!” Cold water hit my face and I gasped and opened my eyes. I was flat on my back in the middle of the room, soaking wet and naked from the waist down, covered with the black and burgundy lapa I’d so proudly worn to my meeting. Six people in full Ebola gear looked down at me, their eyes scared behind the hard plastic masks. My husband was slapping my face and the doctor sat nervously on a plastic chair in the corner.

They would later tell me that I had passed out, stopped breathing, and had a series of seizures, “tremming” as they call it in Liberian English. I am grateful not to remember any of this.

“I’m ok,” I said trying to sit up, “I was just going to the bathroom.”

“You’re not ok,” the doctor said from across the room. “We have to move you for observation.”

The Ebola suits lifted me onto a stretcher and whisked me down the crowded hallways. The other patients strained to see, probably as terrified by the white suits as I was.

They put me in a room across from the nurses’ station and gave me several injections. My husband sat by my side and held my hand. “I think you should go home,” he said. I stared at him for a second, “To Cuttington? You’re right. I’m not getting better and this place is terrible.” “No,” he whispered, “to America.”

That was the moment I became scared. “No,” I shook my head. “It’s not that bad. Let’s go to Monrovia first.”

My condition stabilized after an hour and he left to find food. Siaffa was left in charge and I asked him to tell me stories. I never told him this, but I held on to his voice for those few hours as a lifeline to reality. I’m not sure I would have kept my sanity without him. They brought a sort of warm corn mash and energy drinks. I hadn’t eaten for several days and I had no appetite but I begged Siaffa to feed me. “I’m sorry, please just put it in my mouth.”

As the sun rose in the sky my new room got excruciatingly hot. The nurses said they didn’t have any fans but they refused to let me return to my air-conditioned room, insisting it wasn’t safe for me to be so far away. “You aren’t doing anything for me anyway!” I remember shouting. “I’ve been here five days and I just keep getting worse! I already paid for my room and I want to go there!”

But those were big words for a woman too weak to walk.

They finally agreed to let me return to the private room in the evening. An uncommonly kind nurse had treated us over the weekend and my husband convinced her to stay over night as my private caregiver. She gave me seven or eight injections of “food” in my thigh and I credit her with saving my life that night.

The next morning, terrified I would die, my boss had arranged for the project car to transport me to Monrovia. The hospital refused to transfer me, claiming they were able to treat my condition, and said that if I left it would be against doctor’s orders. There was no hesitation: “We’re leaving.”

My husband’s sister came to help us transfer our things the next morning and he left the room to meet her at the gate. A few minutes later I heard shouting in the corridor and they burst into the room, followed by a security guard. It was raining heavily and Sellah had ushered his sister through an employee entrance to avoid walking all the way around the building in the rain. The security guard was furious and had chased them through the hospital to our room, attempting to arrest them and insisting it wasn’t visiting hours. “I’m a patient!” Sellah kept shouting. “What is wrong with you?” A crowd gathered at the door as more nurses and security guards came to see what was happening. “Please stop,” I pleaded from bed. “I’m sick. We’re both sick. We’re trying to leave.”

A doctor appeared at the door and, apparently insulted that we were discharging ourselves, threw us out. “Get them out of here!” she shouted. “You are no longer welcome in this hospital!” Siaffa and Sellah’s family grabbed our things. “Can you walk?” Sellah asked, grabbing my arm. I nodded and he led me down the hallway, the security attempting to arrest us and shouting as we shoved our way through the crowded hospital. One of my guardian angel nurses rushed forward with a bag of medicine for my trip, but the security refused to let me have it. At the gate the female doctor flung herself in the doorway and blocked the exit. “Where are you going now?” she sneered, a stupid question since she had just told us to leave. But the car had parked outside the ER rather than in the parking lot and we turned the other way, exiting before she realized what was happening.

They took me to my house and asked me to pack a few things before going to Monrovia. “I just want to lay down,” I mumbled and crawled into bed. I don’t remember how long I stayed there but it was probably a few hours. “RB, we have to go now,” Sellah said firmly, shoving a handful of my clothes in a bag and pulling me to my feet. We drove to Monrovia in the pouring rain; me curled up in the backseat with my head in his lap. Sellah’s brother followed behind with our car.

The staff from my office in Monrovia met us at the hospital. I could barely stand to get out of the car so several people supported me to walk inside. They lifted me onto a hard bed in a crowded room and Sellah disappeared to pay the bills (hospitals in developing countries usually require advanced payment). I was alone for the first time and I lay still, watching the other patients.

“This is how people lose their minds,” I thought again, focusing all my attention on staying present.

After what felt like an hour my husband returned with a nurse. “You have four plus malaria” they announced. “We’re taking you to a private room for immediate treatment.” For those of you who have never lived in a malaria region, a number usually accompanies a malaria diagnosis. One is mild and four is severe, the level at which it goes to your brain and you can easily die.

I spent four days at that hospital but I remember very little of it, mostly the metallic taste of the quinine drip. The room was small and my husband slept on the floor next to the bed. On the second night he caught and killed a rat. Many visitors came and went but I remember very few of them. An old friend from the Peace Corps office brought a crate of drinking water at 4:00am one morning. I remember him smiling over me with his gold tooth and promising to pray for me.

My French boss came dutifully every day, begging me to eat. “What can I bring you?” he demanded. I shook my head. “Come on! I have delicious cheeses! I cooked some lentils and chicken!” He brought two bags of food the next day and it was the first time I ate in a week.

Gradually the haze lifted and they told me I was going to be ok. My doctor was a tall, lanky Sierra Leonean with a big Afro and Air Jordan hi-tops. Meeting him and being told I could leave is one of my first clear memories. All the nurses hugged me when I left and I thanked them for saving my life.

We drove the short distance to my office and stayed in the guesthouse for several more days while I tried to regain enough strength to travel home. Once home, I spent another week and a half on bed rest before returning to the office.

Everyone here says I am just strong, but I consider myself lucky. My husband, my son, and a handful of caring strangers saved my life. I am grateful they were by my side and that I had the financial resources to afford real drugs and good care.

Passing to our private room in the government hospital my husband had seen a friend lying on a mat on the floor. She had the same diagnosis as we did but with no money and no one to fight for her the nurses had been giving her B-complex each day and watching idly as she got worse. On Christmas day one of my students and good friends died from typhoid she had been battling for three months. Good antibiotics could have saved her.

Honestly, I don’t blame the nurses. I can’t imagine being a nurse in Liberia. When I got angry with one of them for neglecting us she apologized and told us she was assigned to 35 patients. I am sure they see people die every day and they are literally armed with nothing. Sellah and I got real drugs and more regular treatment because we could afford to give people “cold water” and, working for WHO, my husband knew what to do when the hospital claimed to be out of my medicine. (Actually the person with the key to the supply room had gone home.) We are both educated and know how to push back against broken systems. When I think about going through the same situation poor and uneducated I understand why so many people die.

I am humbled by the way my various privileges saved my life. Many Liberians die every day from the same complications I survived. Like I used to tell my gender students, though, you can’t necessarily get rid of your privilege. All you can do is be aware of it so you can use it to help others.

Liberians often say you should give a person his flower while he is still living. Those flowers, that kindness and care, saved my life. I am committed to cultivating them and sharing as many as I can during my lifetime. This is my sixth year in Liberia. I continue to stay because I continue to want a better world, a world where everyone has access to adequate healthcare and quality education. I am grateful for the opportunity and strength to keep going.

“All the flowers in all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.”


Gender is about all of us

March 19, 2016

The Dean and the County Agriculture Coordinator break ground for the new bathroom.

A few weeks ago my colleague and I organized a gender workshop for the other faculty members in our college.  We met daily for several weeks to prepare and, honestly, I was more nervous than I’ve been in years.  We were two women presenting on gender to twenty-five men convinced it had nothing to do with them.

But it does.  And after three days I think they got it.

The last day of the workshop focused on a discussion of gender problems at the college and possible solutions.  The deplorable bathroom situation came up and suddenly the energy shifted.  The Dean shook his head and said he was “shocked and embarrassed” to learn it was so bad.  My young female colleagues stood up to give personal testimonials.

“We need to do something!” someone yelled.  Then suddenly the Dean said, “Before next semester we’re building a bathroom!  I’ll donate a commode!”  Two other people jumped up to pledge commodes and several other people pledged bags of cement.  By the next day $50 cash had been collected from faculty members and a committee had been formed to write a proposal and secure an estimate.

In my three years at the College I have never seen anything happen so fast!

Over the next two weeks we planned a groundbreaking ceremony and raised another $1,500 in material and cash donations.  I am so proud of them.  For the first time the faculty is unified, working together, and (gasp) talking about gender.

Am I really leading a committee of ten men to build a women’s bathroom??

It’s so encouraging but there is such a long road left to raise the cash needed to complete this project.  So, for the first time, I’m asking for your help.  As of today we need about $8,000 to complete the bathroom and change the game for our students.

Please visit my GoFundMe page to read more about the project and to make your contribution.

“We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”  Malala Yousafzai

Charleston Gray

February 7, 2016

Applying fungicide to Charleston Gray


What do you do when there is nothing you can do?

Last September my son became interested in watermelon. A fellow student had given him some improved Charleston Gray seeds and we calculated conservatively that he could make $1,500USD if he planted all of them.

We worked out a business plan. He needed two shovels and two watering cans (check – I already had them). He needed wood ash to neutralize the pH (check – free from the cafeteria). Aside from his time, our only cost was a truckload of cow manure he arranged to bring from Charles Taylor’s old farm ($50). I told him to use the field behind my house and in October he started brushing. He even climbed the trees, trimming them with his machete so they wouldn’t cast shadows.

By early November he was ready to plant. He brought his roommates and together they sowed about four hundred seeds. A week later barely a hundred had germinated. In their enthusiasm his friends, not agriculturists, had planted the seeds too deep. So he went back and planted almost everything he had left.

He watered religiously every other day in what became a sort of two-hour ritual. At first they hauled water on their heads from the pipe behind my house then, when the campus water went off for a week, he dug a well in the swamp. (Yes, he dug a well.)

The vines started racing across the field and the first few melons started appearing. He was elated and proud, bringing his friends after class to see the progress. Then the watermelon I had planted in my small garden became infested with bugs. I warned him to keep a careful watch and taught him how to spray pesticide. Then, one by one, my vines stopped growing and just… died. I thought that I’d mixed the pesticide too strong or that I hadn’t applied enough fertilizer.

Then his started dying too.

“Sis RB,” he said one evening, “I’m really worried. Something is wrong.” He had been telling me about yellow leaves but I didn’t take him too seriously. I told him to google it or to talk to his pest management professor. (He didn’t do either.) I’d seen a few yellow leaves on his plants but it didn’t seem to be caused by bugs so I thought they might just be sunburned. “Maybe you need more nitrogen?” I offered.

But that evening his face told me it was something else. I walked back to his field and he was right. Something was really wrong. The same thing that had happened to my small garden was happening to him. Leaves were turning yellow then one day the plant was just… dead.

I searched extension sites late into the night and discovered nothing encouraging. Our soil was infested with a nasty type of wilt that was attacking the roots and destroying the plants’ vascular system. “Treatment: None. Outcome: Total collapse of crop.” The most encouraging advice was to grow a variety bred to be resistant—how are we going to get that here?

I didn’t know how to tell him… except to tell him. The next morning I called him over to my desk and showed him some of the pictures. “That’s it!” he exclaimed excitedly. “Now what do we do?”

I just shook my head. Total collapse of crop.

The next few days were like preparing for a funeral. I found some fungicide and showed him how to mix it in the sprayer. I knew it wouldn’t really help but I felt the need to offer something, a sort of palliative care for his soul. I followed behind him and rooted out the sickest of the plants because I knew he couldn’t bear to do it. Just like Ebola bodies, they had to be removed and burned before they could spread the disease further.   His pest management instructor came every day to share in our grief, taking photos and trying to offer suggestions to replant.

As I watched the disappointment, frustration, and anger wash over my son I struggled to find the words I knew he needed. It’s not your fault. There was no way for us to know. You didn’t do anything wrong.

He just shook his head. “It was all a waste. I will never plant watermelon at Cuttington again.”

As a teacher I knew it wasn’t a waste. I knew that, in a way, this was a better learning experience than a big harvest and a pile of money. I knew that after this he would be more cautious, more attentive, and quicker to react to the first sign of danger. I knew that he would be successful when he planted again and that victory would taste twice as sweet because of this disappointment.

Failure is part of life and even more so failure is part of science. We often learn more by falling than we do by climbing, but how do you help students embrace that? How do you normalize failure when it hurts so much?

Failure is hugely embarrassing for Liberians. So much so that teachers are all but forbidden to fail students. “If the result isn’t good, add a hundred to all the grades and divide by two,” a Ministry of Education official told us during my Peace Corps training. Students prefer to leave half an exam paper blank rather than guess on questions they are unsure about. (I have a new policy that you cannot leave until you’ve answered every question and they find it hilarious.) Failure is treated as a deep personal problem rather than a normal part of being human.

So, if that’s the case, what do you do when there’s nothing you can do? What do you do when you’ve done nothing wrong? How do you teach someone to keep digging for that silver lining?

I don’t think you can. But you can offer them your hand every time they fall and, when the time is right, nudge them back into motion.

My son still helps me tend the garden every evening, a habit we started when he was watering his melons, but he’s more serious than he was a few weeks ago. Our conversations are less about agriculture and more about life, dreams, and goals. He’s not ready yet, but I can tell he’s gradually healing and pulling himself back up.

And when the time is right he’s going to spin back into motion with force and determination. The only way to fail is to stop trying.

“Age wrinkles the body. Quitting wrinkles the soul.”

– Douglas MacArthur

Teaching Strength

December 17, 2015

Women in the Soil Science Lab

A few weeks ago my soil science students started their labs. There are about sixty students in the class and I have them broken into fifteen small groups. Each group meets with one of the volunteer TAs each week. Since I started teaching gender it has colored every choice I make. I felt like a hypocrite teaching about the challenges women face in agriculture education in one class while following the status quo in my other class.

I started recruiting female TAs and consciously grouping the girls together for lab and fieldwork. Both were difficult at first. The TAs, both male and female, were worried the female TAs would be challenged by the male students and face embarrassment. I knew they could do it, though, because all of them had performed very well in the course. So I shared my own story with them, of how I had never had a soil science course but here I was teaching it with confidence. “Let them challenge us. No one knows everything but anyone can learn if they want to.”

People can only embarrass you if you let them.

I started with one brave young woman last March and today I have four, with more lined up. (Yes, I also have four male TAs.)

Surprisingly, recruiting the TAs was the easy part. The students, both male and female, have pushed back against my single-sex groupings. Just last week I had a group of young women lament, “Sis RB! So so girls in here. It’s not fine.” They were six female students assigned to a female TA. I casually asked why and they just shifted on their feet and laughed nervously.

When the men are there the women know their role. They know what is his job and what is her job. They know he will measure the samples. They know she will take notes and smile encouragingly. They know he will answer the questions and she will take good notes. By removing the men I removed the roles. And that was exactly what I wanted to do: set them free.

I attended a women’s college and, at the time, I never appreciated the way it was shaping my identity. I could question, explore or excel without it being linked to my gender. I could fail without it being linked to my gender. There is a huge body of research that supports the idea that single sex education, particularly in STEM fields, improves women’s performance. I tried to explain that to the girls in the lab that day.

“When the boys are here they can act rude to you sometimes, right? They can push you out of the way, right? I put you together so you will help each other and feel free at all times.” They nodded, but I could tell they were just being polite.

Thirty minutes later I came back and found them, all six of them quiet in class, having an animated discussion about rounding and significant figures in their calculations.

I didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t take the smile from my face. I’ve never seen women participate like that in the ‘traditional’ groups that result from our 70% male and 30% female split.

My colleagues are all male with just one other female. They have all accused me of encouraging gender inequality. They say women can only get strong by competing with men. I’ve argued that you can’t ask someone to fight before you’ve taught them how. You can’t expect someone to speak freely until you’ve helped them see the value of their contributions.

Most professors’ idea of encouraging the young women is to yell, “Women speak!” Of course everyone shifts in their seat and looks away as silence falls over the room. Usually the professor then cold calls one of the quietest girls in class and she can barely find words to answer. How terrible! They have set up the unfortunate respondent to speak on behalf of all women, to represent all women… as failures. These professors are, however inadvertently, reinforcing stereotypes about women’s inability.

In my gender class I talk about stereotype threat–the very real phenomena that minorities face all day every day and that women experience particularly in math and science courses. In short, stereotype threat is what happens when you are in a minority group within a class and there is a well-known stereotype that your group is somehow deficient in that field. Women are bad at math. Black people are bad at golf. It can be anything. Basically the fear of proving a negative stereotype about your group plays on your mind and actually makes you do worse.

The great news is that it can be easy to free people from this self-fulfilling prophecy. Just tell them it isn’t true! “Men and women do equally well in this course” or “Last semester women got the three highest scores on the exam.” (True story.) I’ve had women in my gender class tell me boldly that men are better farmers than women. Women who have chosen to study agriculture! A gender study at our college reported that about 30% of female students think men are superior to women!

Change is slow but it starts with individuals taking small steps, clasping hands with their neighbors and moving out in a new direction. Once enough people start going others will follow and change will roll through the community with the unstoppable force of a wave.

Our project isn’t going to change people or communities—they will do that if and when they’re ready. We can, however, make conscious decisions to create systems and spaces where everyone is free to achieve at their highest level. For my class that has meant normalizing women’s success by mentoring female TAs to be role models. It has also meant creating opportunities for women (and men) to learn free from gender expectations, stereotypes, and roles.

It is my dream that as these young women and men see each other succeeding and achieving they will join hands and become agents of positive change in their communities. Our primary concern should be producing more food—not who is holding the beaker or the cutlass.

“Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going.”

Nichelle Nichols, former NASA Ambassador and actress

Breaking the Silence

December 13, 2015

Cute Baby in a Red Chair

I haven’t been writing on my blog the past nine months for several reasons. The first reason being that, inevitably, my students have found it. Internet and Facebook are sending tentacles across rural Liberia and that’s changing things, for better and for worse. I’ve always tried to write with my students and friends in mind, respectfully and honestly, but I’ve often been very frank and open. I don’t necessarily want my students to know all my personal feelings and experiences.

Like actors, teachers operate behind a fourth wall. Whatever happens: don’t break. Hold it together for the sake of the audience’s illusion. Class must go on. You are a human being, yes, but for those fifty minutes you are a teacher and, like a pilot, you are responsible for executing a successful takeoff and landing.  Students don’t necessarily need to know there was turbulence.

Thursday was different and important, however, and I feel compelled to share it here.

This is my fifth semester teaching gender and with multiple sections I’ve been through the material enough times to have it memorized. I’ve fine tuned my approach and my manner and learned to laugh. I make it clear to the students that I’m not there to tell them what is right or wrong. I am there to present the data and create a space for them to share ideas, question their beliefs and change if they want to. “You can believe whatever you want, but you should know why. You don’t have to accept things just because they’ve always been that way. It’s your right to disagree. It’s your right to ask why. I will never tell you you’re wrong as long as you can explain yourself.”

I often think of it like opening a door. I’m not making them go anywhere. I’m just creating the opportunity.

Class discussion has been animated and they’ve written beautiful response papers about gender based violence and wife beating. This week we’ve been discussing women’s education and it was time to show the Kakenya Ntaiya Ted talk (discussed in my previous post). I watched it the night before and, having taught it seven or eight times, thought I was ready. The students usually have strong responses but I was sure I could navigate it. As an outsider it isn’t appropriate for me to discuss The Society so I serve as a neutral moderator, ‘protecting’ the speaker. (That’s Liberian English for keeping it quiet and safe for someone to speak freely in a group.)

I wasn’t ready.

The class is about 70% men and 30% women. They grimaced, gasped, and yelled in unison as Kakenya told her story. Four girls wiped tears from their eyes and at the end they were silent like someone had died.

I asked for responses and, after a moment of silence, the room exploded. They were ANGRY. But not because of what happened to Kakenya—because of what she did. “Sis RB, this is an abomination. What right does she have to expose the culture to other people? White people [referring to the audience]. What are they going to think about all of us now?”

All the times I’ve taught this video I’ve never gotten that response. My stomach started to clench and somersault. I knew I was walking a very thin line and suddenly I couldn’t see the road. Other classes have praised her and been grateful to hear the story, but suddenly it was as if I was participating in the white disrespect of African culture. It didn’t matter that I’d been living here five years, that I was wearing an elaborate African suit or even that I was married to an African man. I was a white lady and I was always going to be a white lady when it came to things like this.

Should I have known better? Had I forgotten my place?

I leaned into my uncomfortableness the same way I encourage them to and bounced the question to the other side of the room. Four or five more people echoed the same feelings and it flashed through my mind to end early and send them home—had I offended them? Several other faculty members have been gossiping that I’m unqualified to teach the course because I’m American (white). What if they walked past right now?

But I hung on because this was exactly what I was trying to teach them. To think for themselves. To value their culture. To challenge things that don’t make sense. To accept what I say because it makes sense—not because I am an authority figure.

After all the bitter feelings had come out a quiet movement started. “She’s brave.” “What happened to her is wrong.” “We shouldn’t protect a culture that hurts people.” “I’m a member but I would never send my children.” “Silence hurts all of us.” “I’m so sad right now I can’t even…”

I let them grapple with it for almost an hour before our time ran out, careful to never take a side but honest about human rights laws and medical facts

A group hung around after class. “Thank you. We never get to share ideas like this.” “I have a lot more to say. I’m going to write it in my assignment.”

I drove home (yes, I have a car now) and as soon as I turned off the ignition I burst into tears. Do they realize they are teaching me more than I’m teaching them? That watching them test the limits of their boxes tests mine too?

I stayed for a fifth year because… teaching is the toughest job you’ll ever love.

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”
― Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

I Want to Marry Her

March 23, 2015

My 102 class has been discussing the gender gap in education and how it affects agricultural productivity. To cap things off I showed a Ted talk on Friday. The speaker is a Kenyan woman who bargained with her father and agreed to undergo FGM to be able to attend high school. She eventually finds her way to college in the United States, works at the UN, and returns to the village to open a school for girls.

It’s a powerful presentation about courage, perseverance, and service to others and many of the students were moved by it. One girl spoke about her plan to open an orphanage. “I hear her story and I have hope. Sometimes I worry my dream is too big but she makes me believe I can do it.” A boy raised his hand at the back and said, “Even though I want to be a soil scientist I want to be like her. Education makes you bright and I want to return to my village and use my light to improve things.”

But there’s one mouth in every class and I have several this semester.

Emmanuel raised his hand. Judging from his smirk I knew I didn’t want to hear what he had to say, but I couldn’t ignore him. “Yeah, Sis RB. I like her. I want to marry her!

It was one of those moments that I know is teachable and I’m supposed to have a brilliant, witty response but I drew a complete blank. My brain was just a big flashing “IDIOT!” sign and I knew I couldn’t say that. I just stared at him vacantly and everyone in class started laughing. “You don’t want to BE like her, Emmanuel? You just want to OWN her?”

It’s good to have an educated wife and we’ve talked about that… but… face palm.

I gave him my best teacher-death-smile, acknowledging that everyone has a right to speak his or her mind, and called on someone else. I would have loved to see one of my professors from Bryn Mawr respond to that.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
-Reinhold Niebuhr

A Fair Shot?

March 4, 2015

Working on the farm

Classes started last week but today was the first day I got to actually teach. The agriculture college has been the base for Ebola training and when IMC vacated the classrooms they had to be sprayed. There is a mandatory waiting period after spraying and they didn’t do it until… the day we were supposed to start. So our already short semester lost another week. Better late than never, though, and it is so good to be back.

I was told to expect low enrollment and small classes but almost everyone is back and classes are as overcrowded as ever (at least mine are). I’m teaching the same soil science and gender/food security courses I had last year plus a new one about gender in agriculture extension. I pushed hard not to have any new classes but there was no escaping it so I’ve resolved to enjoy myself. Today there were only thirty students in the extension class and it’s a junior-level class so I know almost all of them. It’s so much easier when they know your system and no one feels shy to talk!

When I taught gender last semester there was tension from a good number of the men and I wanted to address that early this semester. “Gender” is too often thought of as “women” and men need to realize they are an important part of the solution. We discussed gender characteristics verses sex characteristics and the way gender expectations change across cultures. I could see a lot of “light bulbs” going off and that’s always gratifying for a teacher.

Then I tried an exercise I came across somewhere online. It’s ridiculously simple but really illustrative of gender disparity. (I’m sharing it so you can have it in your pocket if you ever need it.) I divided scrap paper and told everyone to write their name then crumple it into a ball. I set a wastebasket at the front of the room and told them I’d give a bonus point to anyone who could throw their ball in the basket… without leaving their seat. They went crazy. “It’s not fair! I want to stand up! I’m moving my chair!” We went row by row and they tried to hit the basket, everyone gasping and cheering as paper balls bounced in and around, about eight making it in.

I unwrapped the papers and called the names of the people who had made it in. Predictably, most of them were sitting in front and there were just a few lucky people from the back rows. “So how was it?” I asked, “Was that a fair thing for me to do?” The people in the front mostly nodded and the people in the back threw their arms in the air and yelled. “We couldn’t even see the basket!” I just shrugged and smiled at the people in the front row, “Sorry yeah!”

Then I explained to them that the people in the front row are like men and the people in the back are like women. I gave them the same materials and the same task but they weren’t starting from the same place so it wasn’t really the same challenge. The idea is not to send men to the back but to bring women to the front so everyone has the same opportunity to shoot their ball in the basket. We’re not trying to knock men down, but rather help them realize their privilege at the front. The people in the front weren’t thinking about the people in the back, not because they are mean but because it never occurred to them to turn around. “This class is about turning around and reaching out your hand to pull them up. You are privileged as a man and you can’t change that. I am privileged as a white person and I can’t change that. But when we are aware of our privilege we can use it to help other people get to the front so they have a fair shot too.”

When class time was up they wouldn’t stop asking questions so we could go. It’s going to be an exhausting semester but I’m encouraged. Planting seeds, forever I am planting seeds.

“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”          -Madeleine Albright

A Quiet Sadness

February 24, 2015

Sad baby

I arrived in Liberia exactly one week ago. Nurses met the airplane at the terminal and asked everyone to wash their hands while they aimed thermometers at our temples. It was the first sign that things were not the same, but I quickly forgot about it as I jostled for my luggage in the crowded claim area.

I’d made friends on the plane and we shouted back and forth looking for each other’s bags… but to no avail. Two of mine were missing and as the ancient conveyor belt creaked to a halt I realized they weren’t coming. I filed a claim and slid through the customs check using my rusty Mano, the last passenger left inside. I dragged my solitary bag outside and looked for the driver. I was afraid he might have given up and left, but there he was. I pulled him in for a hug despite his half-hearted protest of “No touching!” and I knew that I was home. Exhausted and filthy but home.

It was 10:30pm but still a good 85ºF and humid for dry season. As we drove into Monrovia in the dark I wondered what the daylight would bring. This couldn’t possibly be the same Liberia I left in July, but as we sped through towns I saw groups of young people crowded around video clubs and women roasting meat. I felt hopeful.

And that feeling has continued the past seven days. Things are so much the same that the images I saw on television six months ago almost seem impossible. Hand washing stations and elbow bumps have replaced the customary snap handshakes and hugs but people are getting back to their normal lives. Everyone at Cuttington has been thrilled to see me and it’s almost like my presence is a sign that “normal times” are coming back. It must be the same way many communities felt when Peace Corps finally returned after the war.

It’s humbling.

Over the weekend I walked to the village behind Cuttington to visit my friend Oretha and as we sat and lectured I started to realize things might not be as normal as they felt at first. It was something I picked up on talking to some of the students during the week but couldn’t put my finger on. It’s like a sort of quiet sadness has descended on the country. Normal things are happening on the surface, but nothing is as loud, active, or exuberant as before. It’s like the whole country is exhausted, used up.

When people say “We thank god, at least we are alive” you know that’s exactly what they mean. That’s a very Liberian kind of thing to say and the first few years I was here it seemed strange. We’d be having a faculty meeting and the principal would open by saying something like “Thank god none of us died last night and we are all together now.” That—being alive—is something we forget to appreciate in America. Any of us could go at any time. If it were your time would you be ready? Would you be proud of your life?

Today I was sitting in my office when a man came in and sat down. He asked if I was the white lady who was friends with Mistress Yekeh and did I know she was dead. I nodded quietly and told him I’d shed many tears. He had been her neighbor and was in communication with her up until the end. According to him, Mistress Yekeh’s daughter got sick and, like I suspected, she rushed to Monrovia to help her. None of the clinics would see them and the Ebola Treatment Unit at ELWA Junction, one of the only ones in Monrovia at the time, was at capacity. They slept outside the hospital hoping someone would come to help. During the night the daughter got worse and died, there on the ground just outside the hospital.

When Mistress Yekeh called her own mother with the news she dropped dead, possibly from a heart attack. A few days later Mistress Yekeh started to feel ill so she admitted herself to a treatment center and was confirmed Ebola positive. She asked someone to bring her Bible and her reading glasses. A few days later she died too and became another black body bag in an unmarked grave.

As he finished the story the man shook his head, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and left as quickly as he’d come. “Mistress Yekeh didn’t die of Ebola,” were his final words on the way out. “I know she died of a broken heart.” I shook my own head and fought to keep tears from splashing on the pile of books I was cataloging.

And just like that the quiet sadness came over me too. I fear it will be one of the lasting scars Ebola leaves on this beautiful country.

“If you’re going to care about the fall of the sparrow you can’t pick and choose who’s going to be the sparrow.  It’s everybody.” -Madeleine L’Engle

It all falls down

December 6, 2014

Frangipani Tree

They say that when it rains it pours. Right now it’s pouring and it would be so easy to let go and wash away. I’ve been juggling a lot of balls the past few months and one by one they are slipping through my hands.

At the beginning of November I sent three of my students to Monrovia to take the SAT. They managed to print their admission tickets, pick up money at the bank, and find a safe place to lodge. They followed my directions precisely but were turned away at the test center. “Come back Monday. There has been a death in the test administrator’s family.” I didn’t think the Collegeboard would approve of that but my students needed the scores for their applications so I let it go.

They returned the following Monday and the test was administered, but my student Romeo was taken in a different room and given the wrong test. He protested. My other students protested. The administrator shrugged and told him it was too late. They called me in a panic that night and I could feel the fear in Romeo’s voice. It was like he could see his dreams crashing before they had a chance to get off the ground. “Ms. RB, do something. They won’t help us!”

I know the test administrator looked at their admission tickets and underestimated them. What can three poor kids from the ‘bush’ do? Ha!

Within ten minutes I was on the phone with the SAT head office lodging a complaint and opening an investigation of the situation. It took three weeks but they agreed to let him retake the test and a nice woman helped me do a last minute registration so Romeo could retake it this weekend. He needs these scores now so we couldn’t wait until the next date at the end of January.

It was a small victory but still a victory.

And in the meantime they had finished all their applications, the transcripts had arrived at the admissions office, and the pieces were slowly coming together. I allowed myself to feel hopeful.

My own grad school application had been rejected again but something good had to be on the horizon. Flip the coin enough times and you have to get the right side sometimes.

The phone rang this morning and it was Romeo. I asked how his retake of the SAT went. “Oh, I didn’t take it. They said to come back Monday. The test administrator died. They said they can’t just leave his body laying around so they can’t give the test today.”

Liberia isn’t easy. Are you getting that?

Looking for some good news I logged into the students’ online application portals for one of the schools. I wanted to see if their test scores or transcripts had been uploaded yet. Not only had that not happened: they had already been rejected.

The school hadn’t processed or received all my students’ documents yet they determined they are not academically qualified. It’s not that I can’t take rejection. It’s that there are still major cards in play.  How can they end the game while we’re still playing?

Each student did an 11-page scholarship application in addition to the regular application. I spent hours writing glowing recommendation letters and helping them find other references in the community.

And no one is going to read any of it because of a few arbitrary numbers.

Keep climbing, kids. They can’t see you yet and they don’t care how deep the hole is. Shame on them for that.

“You are not judged by the height you have risen, but from the depth you have climbed.”

– Frederick Douglass

Life Goes On

November 10, 2014

WAEC Lunch

With so much bad news about Liberia these days it’s probably hard to imagine that anyone’s life is going on normally. Many of you have asked how my students are and the answer is, as always, busy. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know this is scholarship season: the best-worst thing that happens each year. Add an ocean between us and it’s double the fun.

It all started back in May 2012 when I walked into my twelfth grade class on the last day of school and announced, “I’m going to the UN camp after school to try to print information about a scholarship in Costa Rica. Come to my house tomorrow if you’re interested.”

I woke up to forty people in my front yard at 6:00am.

Two bags of applications, several sleepless nights and dozens of prayers and favors later, Festus went.

Learning from my mistakes, the next year I chose six kids and we spent the weekends whispering on my porch and quietly completing forms while I told the rest of the town, “Really, I don’t know anything about scholarships. Of course I’ll let you know.”

Newton went.

By the third year I had moved to Gbarnga so we literally went on the road. I picked two promising students to win a ‘dream trip’ to Cuttington. They spent a week at my house watching DStv, learning how to microwave food and writing through most of a ream of paper.

Saye and George went.

At the end of July the three of us left Liberia together, them for four years and me for two weeks. But less than a week into my vacation I was forbidden to return because: Ebola. I’d packed none of their documents or my application files (I have an entire shelf dedicated to this). I’d hastily packed one bag, mostly with gifts, and asked someone to take care of my flowers.

In August it started becoming clear this was an extended stay—not a vacation—and both my head and my heart started racing. I’d already talked to students. I’d already made promises and plans.

And now… the Atlantic Ocean.

There was so much I didn’t have, but three years in Liberia taught me to focus instead on what remained. What I did have were scanned copies of their previous unsuccessful applications (mercifully recovered from a crashed hard drive by a Lebanese man on Randall street), a lot of cell phone numbers, and a little money in my bank account.

What can you do with $1,000 and a dream? Make a lot of international phone calls.

All I can say is thank god for Ezetop. It allows me to send money directly to their cell phones so they can call me for five cents a minute instead of the eighty cents a minute I get on my phone card. …but if I had $5LD for every time I said, “ARE YOU GETTING ME?” or got woken up at 3:00am… I’d be rolling in butter candy.

We can’t talk when it’s raining there or raining here or when they can’t afford to charge their phones, but things are slowly happening, my friend.

I have four kids this year, three sons and one daughter, and they’re moving mountains. In the middle of this Ebola storm they’ve managed to get their official transcripts, mail them at UPS in Monrovia (their first time mailing anything), as well as study for and take the SAT. They’re each almost finished with applications for two schools and I couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve chosen to study: public health, human rights, sustainability, and gender.

They have experience organizing tutoring programs, working for the court, and leading women’s groups. There is no doubt that these are tenacious, hard working future leaders. There is no doubt that they are committed to a brighter future for their country. But the question that looms and that I cannot answer is whether the American schools they’re applying to share their courage, whether they can look past Ebola, look past the fear and misunderstanding to see how much has been accomplished with so little, how much remains to be done, but how much one small act can change a life.

And when you can change a life you can start changing the world.

There is simply too much at stake to let a virus, an ocean, or a phone bill get in the way of what needs to be done. Ebola can only stop progress when we stop working.  Keep us in your thoughts next time you flip past Fox News or CNN. Keep us in your thoughts next time you post about Ebola on Facebook and Twitter. These are good people fighting for their right to life.

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

-Mother Theresa

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